Thursday 08 October 2020, 06:01

Football on the Rock

  • The global game in Gibraltar

  • Became a member of FIFA in 2016

  • GFA – one of the oldest national associations in the world

Modern football dates back more than 150 years. It began in 1863, when England separated rugby and association football into different sports and the oldest football association in the world – the English FA – was formed. The likes of Germany followed in 1900, then came Japan in 1921 and Brazil in 1923. Argentina had already created the Asociacion del Futbol Argentino (AFA) back in 1893, making it one of the oldest members of the footballing family.

Just two years after the AFA first saw the light of day, another national association was created in Europe but which doubtless has received much less recognition since then – the Gibraltar Civilian Football Association, which later came to be known as the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA).

Gibraltar sits at the very foot of the Iberian peninsula, occupying a mere seven square kilometres, making it the third-smallest territory in the world after the Vatican and Monaco. It has a population of just 35,000, but nevertheless football is the most popular sport in this British overseas territory.

"We’re crazy about football, and now that we’re a member of UEFA and FIFA, there’s even more interest. People are even coming from abroad to play here," says the country’s captain Roy Chipolina. Home games are played at the Victoria Stadium, which is right in between the airport and the famous rock that is home to over 200 different species of ape. It is the only stadium in the territory, meaning that all domestic and international matches are held there.

Shortage of players at youth and pro level

As is the case for almost all of the 3,000 licenced men’s and women’s footballers in Gibraltar, Chipolina lives for football, not off it, and has a full-time job in customs administration. "Ever since Gibraltar got to play its first official international match, I’ve been living my dream every single day. We get to go up against the best players in the world and gain experience," he explains.

The players are amateurs, so they're merely compensated for their time. There's now a little more money available, so at least those involved no longer have to cover their own travel and hotel expenses. Hardly anyone here can fully devote their lives to football, however, and that's reflected in the players’ performances.

"Once my working day is over, I drive across the border every evening to Spain for training," the captain says, and indeed all 12 clubs train in Spain. "I’ve never known any different. When it comes to football, there’s nothing I won’t do. I just love playing."

"Sometimes you’re already pretty tired by the time you get to training because work has to take priority," says Lee Casciaro, who plays for Gibraltar alongside his brother Kyle. "Football is more or less a second job for us." Kyle works as a shipping agent, and while he tries to knock off work early, he often gets to training late and there are even times when he has to combine the two. "It’s crazy,” he says. “When we’re running, I often have my mobile phone with me and when a call comes in, I have to take it if it’s one of my ships that’s coming into Gibraltar."

Joseph Chipolina of Gibraltar celebrates after Lee Casciaro of Gibraltar (not pictured) scores

Despite being 37 and 39 respectively, Chipolina and Casciaro have firmly established themselves in the national team. "We’ll keep on playing as long as our legs allow," they say, but that is also indicative of another issue – namely that there are not enough youth players or opportunities for them to get game time. The GFA is aware of this problem and brought in a rule change at the start of this season, meaning that each team now has to field not four but five players from the country on the (artificial) pitch in order to develop youth players.

A brief history of Gibraltar

  • British forces introduce football in the 19th century and establish league and cup competitions

  • The Gibraltar Football League – the first civilian football league – is founded in October 1907 with eight teams

  • First league-winners: Prince of Wales FC

  • Between 1949 and 1955, clubs like Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Real Valladolid and Admira Wacker come to Gibraltar to take on the national team

  • May 2013: Acceptance by UEFA

  • September 2016: Acceptance as 211th member of FIFA

Just a few months after their membership was approved, the country got to take part in qualifying for the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™. They were drawn in a group with Belgium, Greece, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Estonia and Cyprus but failed to register a point.

It had already been a similar story in EURO qualifying, but after four defeats without managing a goal, Lee Casciaro opened the country’s account on 29 March 2015 in a 6-1 defeat against Scotland – a goal that made the scoreline 1-1 at the time. Around 18 months later, Gibraltar finally wrote themselves into the annals of football in the World Cup qualifier against Greece on 6 September 2016, when Liam Walker equalised to make it 1-1 in the 26th minute, registering his country’s first goal in a FIFA competition.

In the UEFA Nations League 2018/19, Gibraltar defeated Armenia 1-0 in October 2018 to record their first ever win – and an away one at that.

Recent results

The team found itself stuck in a run of 11 defeats that was brought to a halt four weeks ago by Graeme Torrilla, who found the back of the net with a header from a free-kick in the match at home to San Marino, securing victory for the country placed 195th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. In their most recent outing, however, on 7 October 2020, Gibraltar went down 2-0 to Malta.

This article is part of the 'Global Game' series, which focuses on football in places away from the spotlight. Next week we'll travel to Brunei Darussalam.